A dedicated research project on the challenges, hopes and dreams of women in family business leadership positions

Business Consulting Resources (BCR) undertake an annual research project on the topic of women in the family business, creating a platform for women to share their personal experiences and shed light on issues that may have previously been overlooked.

Through intimate one-on-one conversations with the participants, a collection of stories of how women in the family business are evolving, learning, adapting and succeeding comes together. For the first time, this year’s study featured male as well as female family business members, focusing on next gens and their perceptions of both their predecessors and their own future in family business.

In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Jean Santos and Celine Casamina of Business Consulting Resources and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the results of the latest research, how the imposter syndrome impacts women and the way in which women in the family business are adapting to create their own success.


R: BCR Consulting, the business that you build over decades, is dedicated to the continuity of family businesses all over the world. But every year, you create this research project around the topic of women and family business.

Why is it so important to you to undertake new research every year, particularly into this topic?

J: First of all, a woman in a family business – I hold that title. I also grew up in a family business that my parents ran. So it was normal for me to see a husband and wife working together. And even as I was growing up, you could see these challenges, issues, biases, discriminatory practices, just extra layers of stuff that got heaped onto my mother in her role in working with my father.

And then even myself, when I started working with my husband, Ken, just the subtleties that got in the way that stifled our growth, that made us have to prove even more than our male colleagues. That seemed to me to be reason enough to look at how we women in family businesses are finding our voice, how we’re evolving, how we are learning, how to get out of our own way in creating our own success. And we wanted to have validity behind what we were saying. We didn’t want to just say, “well, we think or we’ve read past studies.” We felt things evolve. Particularly now, things evolve. It’s such a rapid pace that we felt it was important to make a commitment and dive into this very meaty issue around the particular characteristics and issues that impact women, particularly women in family organisations who want to rise.

R: What do you think of the effectiveness of these findings for this generation?

C: You know, it’s, it’s interesting – right before we signed on to the podcast, the three of us emphasised the importance of storytelling and the power of reading stories and what that can mean. Through this research, Jean and I had one-on-one intimate conversations with these women and, through that, we are telling their story.

We are recognizing an issue, a problem, a dynamic by simply allowing a platform for these women share their stories. And I think that in itself is different than what you were seeing maybe two generations ago, where women didn’t have that strong of a voice or at least a platform to share that.

By doing this research, we are calling attention to this area that has previously been underlooked, and I think the power lies within this collection of stories, which comes directly from the women living them. They get to share the stories of their generations prior and what they hope the world looks like.

So it’s not just about what Jean and I want to see in a new world where women have equality in the workplace, where they’re treated the same way that anyone else would be in the family business. I think what’s been so important for us is advocating for the people we care about and advocating for the things we care about.

We’re both women in business. We’re both women in family business. The people we work with are in our families in business. And so this entire effort was really about creating that platform to share their stories and shed light on issues that I think didn’t have the spotlight previous to this. So I think, as we start to recognize some of these issues and just highlight them, that’s step one in coming up with a solution.

When we highlight the inequity, that’s when we start solving problems. And that’s how we get to what Jean was talking about, which is next-generation millennial women like myself and women who will come after me will be able to climb up the ladder without the restrictions, without anything holding them back because of gender. And part of that is simply acknowledging their stories.

R: So there’s a large part of this that’s advocacy for the women of your respective generations, for women everywhere. But then also I am particularly always excited in understanding what new fresh data brings us.

Tell us about the research agenda you had, maybe you can run us through the theme first.

C: So as you know, in 2019, we focused on the unique intricacies and nuances of women and family enterprises, and just what they face having so many hats on.

So we really took a deep dive into looking at their unique situation. As you know, we uncovered quite a bit about the hardships that they face, both within their business and in their personal lives. In these very unique positions as women and family enterprises, what we wanted to uncover this year was taking a look at the generational shift and the impacts of previous women leaders on the incoming generation.

So millennials like myself, I’m looking at generation Y and Z and seeing how their perceptions have changed, if at all, over the generations. We want to get their perspective on a number of significant issues, including gender and business, how their specific family businesses operate, whether or not gender plays a role in their decision-making, their perceptions on leadership on female leadership, and how they were inspired and influenced by previous generations of leaders.

We recognised that there’s an element of generational thinking in terms of the perception of gender in business. And so we wanted to go to the next generation of leaders to see if gender within business, as a topic, was changing in society. If the perceptions of female leaders in business was moving in the right direction.

So for this year’s research, it was another qualitative study. We interviewed participants in Hawaii and California, both male and female.

J: I think there were some really interesting things that came out of that male/female dynamic, and one that particularly stuck with me, as Celine was saying, was we asked the rising gens how they were influenced by the women who came before them, and what did they admire about those women in terms of their leadership and the characteristics that they displayed.

We got some very interesting things from the female respondents.

For instance, the female respondents were saying the leadership characteristics that they saw in the previous generations that they want to take were things like being a visionary, fighting for what’s right, not fearing stepping on toes, always maintaining emotional control.

Those are kind of things that we were saying are good leadership traits that men have. Then we got from the males what they admired in the women who came before them: humility, putting their family first, being confident in themselves, having strong values.

And that just totally blew my mind because I would typically think that a female would raise those things. So, in a way, I was kind of pleased to hear these young men raising these characteristics and saying, “yeah, you know, I admired this about these women.”

I think that’s very cool because we need to have a little bit more of the balance in the next generation of men, I think.

R: I think what makes this year’s research so interesting is you’ve had both voices in there, male and female. But I also think I’m sadly not that surprised, but I’m also slightly upset about it.

If you think about it, the women felt empowered because it meant having a role model, that they could stop apologizing, that you had a point of reference that didn’t make you “bossy” for knowing what you wanted.

And it’s so interesting to me that the men perceive those successful women as humble and family orientated. And it’s just exactly that difference, isn’t it?

So we’re still measuring women by a different standard than we do men. And don’t get me wrong. I’m a proponent of saying there are fundamental differences. Our roles are different.

There’s a reason why we are different, and that’s to be celebrated and to be respected. But I think we’re talking here about research that should help us come to a fundamental deep-rooted respect for the person over the gender. And that’s such an important ingredient for the continuity of those family enterprises.

I love that about this research this year that you put together, because it underlines that that hypocrisy runs so deep. So women are still looking to role models that will set them free of the apology.

And men still look at role models, female role models, as those women that do it all. If you want to work, you also need to excel as a mother, et cetera.

How does it feel when you do that kind of research and you get those kinds of answers? I know that you’re both experts at doing that research and staying neutral, but isn’t that frustrating sometimes?

J: So here we get that piece that I just was sharing about what the guys say and what the women say. And then we ask the women and the men: “So what are you looking forward to? You know, what are your future plans? What are you going to do? You’re rising gens in your family business – what difference are you making and what are you looking forward to?” So the females say, “ I’m going to grow the company. I’m going to build my team. I’m going to create a family council. We’re going to make its succession legacy.”

The men are saying, “I just want to be the CEO.” And that was the number one response. So, whatever they said earlier about all those wonderful qualities, they just put these women right back in the box and said, “you go do your thing. You can work, but boy, you better uphold all that other stuff that we traditionally assigned to you.”

Super, super frustrating, from my point of view.

R: I always believe in starting with ourselves here. I’d never point the finger at men as being the evil doers. In conversations on women and family business here on this podcast, we’ve always been great representatives of saying we need more content out of the female perspective in order for men to even hear these arguments for them to be aware.

I know so many men who’d be horrified if they caught themselves actually at this and who are just not aware – and the moment that they become aware, feel terrible. And that’s also the thing that you don’t want.

You want these men to find their way through the research that you’ve done to realize “I’ve raised my kids differently.”

When you look at the research, the answers of the women, they might not be focused so much on their individual role in the company, but rather at the collective growth of the common good.

But tell us, in your perspective, when you have these conversations with these women, what do you think is going to get in the way? What do you think is going to keep them from being able to achieve that? Because we know that not all of them will get to live this vision – and most of the time, it’s because we get in our own way, but I want you to tell me what in those interviews stood out to you where you’re like “this part of your answer is what’s going to stop you from realizing the ambition that you have.”

C: We get in our own way. We get in our own head.

And this is something that we discovered in our research last year, which is why the imposter syndrome continues to resurface. It’s this thought that I need to be overqualified in order to do that. Not just being the best of myself, but being the best of everyone around me really. need to go above and beyond what my male counterparts are doing. I need to get the MBA. I need to join all of the professional associations … it’s not the concept of wanting to achieve and overachieve, it’s the concept of doubting yourself, of not trusting that what you have is worthy. It’s interesting – whenever I talk about this research, I can’t make the same generalisations that I did with our 2019 research.

They all are quite different. We had some men who are much more self-aware, who went as far as to say, “I know I have biases that I’m aware of.” Some of them were very aware, but they’re all happening on different levels, and biases still certainly exist in all of their answers, even when they didn’t really realize it. This concept of “I don’t think that my family business operates with any gender bias, but no, we don’t have any female leadership positions.”

So just this concept of starting with yourself. If we don’t even recognize some of the hurdles that are in front of us, we continue to make excuses for other people and how they are upholding those gender biases and stereotypes. I think that was actually a big issue in some of my conversations with these women, partially because a lot of the people they’re working with are family members.

And so instead of calling things out, they just show it off as, “Oh, that’s just the way that they think, it’s just the way that they were brought up. They’re not bad. That’s just how they used to think. So it’s not a problem.” It’s just this idea of having such a deeply rooted, institutionalized way of thinking when it comes to women.

These gender roles are so ingrained into our thinking, the way we’re brought up, that it’s repeating itself.

Even when we think we’re above that, like you said, so many men we know would be shocked to hear that they exhibit behaviour that actually does highlight their implicit gender biases. But if we don’t get out in front of that, and don’t really recognise that as what it is, if we’re too afraid to call it out, if we just knock it off and say, “well, it’ll be better,”

I don’t know if it will.

J: It’s a learned response right now. And we have to unlearn that response and help build a new way of thinking really at a societal level.

R: I think that it’s a very interesting time to live in for women at this stage.

I was wondering whether you had both seen specific differences between gen Y and gen Z, if you’ve already seen a shift or not, because I do think that we still live in a world that’s been designed by baby boomers and their parents, which there’s such nothing wrong with, but there’s clearly a level of obsolete newness about some of the structures that are there, especially as they pertain to women’s roles in the workplace and that kind of thing.

Also the fact that we mostly have politicians that are baby boomers, that clearly biases the agenda here.

And when I hear your answers, I’m thinking to myself, am I doing enough? And if I’m not doing enough, why am I not doing enough?

Am I afraid to ruffle feathers? And it might sound strange from the host of a podcast, but I know I already have already imposter syndrome alert, but it still feels like sometimes I skirt the issue.

And I’d rather, I think, bring up that issue and bring up that accountability in a moment and not let people get away with it. But it’s a hard thing to instil if you’ve been taught to keep the harmony.

So I was wondering what you thought were the tools. You, Jean, as a mother of grown-up kids, what is it that you’ve given them that you didn’t have to break out of those stereotypes? What is it that you consciously instilled in them, saying “I spend my whole life apologizing for this. I don’t want you to do the same thing?”

J: That’s a great question. And, and frankly, it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of about our family and who these two young adults have become having grown up in a family business, where I watched the typical gender roles. And even now, I own the imposter syndrome alert all the time.

I haven’t given it up. I hit my head against the wall to ask myself why, but I haven’t given it up. And my darling husband, who I have been in business with for almost 40 years, every once in a while I catch him and I go, “do you know what you just said?” And he’s one of the most enlightened people I know.

So what we did when we raised our kids, literally from the time they were out of the room, we spoke to them as adults. We didn’t give them any concept of any limitations whatsoever on who they choose to be, what they choose to do, where their paths are going to take them. We expose them to everything known to mankind that we could possibly fit into their lives. From academically, emotionally, spiritually, physically, sports, music, arts. I mean, you name it. And we were always brutally honest with them about everything in very appropriate and kind ways. And then the last thing we did was we let them see the family dynamic of mum and dad and the way we handled each other in creating our company, growing our company, handling issues between the two of us where we weren’t always aligned with decisions. And I am just so in awe of these amazing young people. And I’m so thankful that it worked because they don’t come with operations manuals. And I had two at once and didn’t know any parenting.

I learned on the fly, but it just felt like the right thing to do. And I’m just so delighted and loving, loving, loving, loving parenting these adults now.

R: When you did this research, did you start consciously reflecting on how that’s influenced you and your notion of what’s possible for you and your notion of your own limitations?

C: A hundred percent. Yes, absolutely. And I think some of the toughest questions to have with yourself are recognising any holes or areas of improvement, rather than just celebrating all of the good things. I grew up in a very supportive family who was always very encouraging and told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. You know, as a daughter of immigrants who came to this country with nothing and built their business together, I was always told that I really could do whatever I wanted to and achieve what I wanted to achieve if I worked hard.

I have incredible parents who work together in the business who support each other in all things life. But, with that being said, my mum helped to build this company from the ground up, and it is my dad’s name.

I know how hard my mum worked behind the scenes, not just in the business, handling the books and everything, I mean everything – she also raised us at home and made sure that we were at school on time and got to extracurriculars, and we all had dinner on the table and sat down together by 7:00 PM.

And so I recognized that I probably had one of the greatest experiences growing up, seeing powerful women around me, not just my mum, but my two older sisters. My dad has always been so encouraging of us and always telling us to go after larger than life dreams, and yet even in the prettiest of pictures, there are still deeply rooted things that you at least have to recognize.

Today, I live with my sister and her four-year-old daughter. My niece is not growing up in a regular household. She has her mother and her auntie, who are two strong women. She’s always around a woman – her grandma, my other sister. And tonight, as we’re putting goodie bags together, she says “this one has to be a boy’s because it’s blue. And this is a boy colour, not a girl colour,” and we all stop the goodie bag making.

And we said, “Glenn, why? Mummy likes blue.” And it’s breaking things down like that as they happen and just being a really strong advocate about that. And putting that into your entire lifestyle, not just these one offs, not just hearing about it here and there.

R: I love that example of calling it out as it happens and also calling it out early enough.

What’s going to stick with her is making those goodie bags with you guys and questioning that, so that critical thinking that you’re giving her there is amazing, which so many of us have to learn later on. To question our limiting beliefs is something that many of us have had to learn later on with regards to the family members that we confront. And I think here we come to a very interesting part where I’ve come to the conclusion, having suffered from it, myself, that unfortunately family, regardless how closely knit, and family members in themselves are probably the greatest reason why we suffer from imposter syndrome.

It sounds harsh; I don’t mean it like that. I’m all about family first, et cetera, but I also am very aware of the minefield of emotional pitfalls. And I think what you’ve said is so true – even given the best possible scenario – like the parents who did everything – the imposter syndrome can come from trying to live up to those standards that your mother set in a different generation. So actually having these role models in your family can also be a double-edged sword for women – and for men as well.

I think that across genders, having strong, charismatic role models, potentially founders in your direct parent-child relationship, can create a huge bias on how you quantify your own success and if you ever think that it’s enough. Or that you ever are allowed to set your own standards.

So then with immigrant families, that’s amplified because obviously we have a huge terror of being pulled back into anything that resembles the beginnings.

So there’s this constant fire and drive to make sure that doesn’t happen. And for some reason, it translates across many generations. It’s really strange. And I feel like women in particular have had this weird feeling about “if I admit to any kind of vulnerability of any kind of insecurity openly, I will be crucified.”

Tell me about the prevalence of the imposter syndrome between the men and the women that you interviewed. How strongly and how did it manifest in each gender?

J: I think that women are still very much trapped by that imposter syndrome. I noted earlier that I fall into that same bucket of being trapped by it. And the interesting thing to me is that we know it. We know that it’s a block, but for some reason, we can’t seem to let it go.

We can’t just trust that we are enough and we are capable, and we can take our place, make those statements and be heard. We just never let ourselves believe that. And I don’t know why that still is a problem. I can’t put my finger on it.

I think back on my own upbringing, and my parents struggled every day of their life – they struggled with their company, they struggled to survive, they struggled to make ends meet, they struggled to educate three girls in private schools.

They struggled and they didn’t give myself and my two sisters the perspective that we could become whatever our minds could imagine and whatever our hard work could take us to. They said exactly the opposite. So I was raised in this push-down household. “You will never aspire to more than we are. You will perpetuate what we are now.” So I had to get over that, and I think there are lots of us who have that in Hawaii. It’s not an aggressive society. And lots of us who are born and raised in this society are taught “know your place and live in your place.” And I think women in family business are really struggling with that.

We don’t want to be in our place. We want to make a new place. We have to want the partners and colleagues that we’re working with to help us open the door, to make that place. And to join us at building the foundation and lifting us all up as we do that.

I hope over time we can figure out how to teach women in family business how to let go of this whole imposter syndrome and how to teach the men who collaborate with them to support that effort. I really hope that that’s something we can arrive at. I don’t see it at all in the men we talked to. None of the young men that we interview express any doubts or anything close to the imposter syndrome at all.

I mean, just the opposite. I think that their confidence exudes – their desire to state their place and go take their place is very much out there. Without hesitation whatsoever.

J: And then the other commonality that was interesting about this whole evolution of gender and imposter syndrome and biases was that both the young men and young women that we talked to were saying, “I wish I knew how to solve it.”

And they were in total agreement that this is a societal issue and a generational issue. This is not something that we are going to change, just because we’re going to “give it a decade.” It’s so rooted.

C: You know, how imposter syndrome manifests itself looks different. I think – and this is just my interpretation of the responses and the research –when female participants gave us leadership characteristics that are typically associated with male leaders, that’s an example of them trying to shroud their own styles and what they think will be best received by people around them.

For men, I think the example of saying “yes, I’m going to be the next CEO – that’s my main goal” is because in the generations before him, that’s what the men were doing.

So it’s not even just the concept of imposter syndrome.

It’s part of it, certainly, but also just the concept of continuing the same patterns over and over again, even when you don’t realize it. And in women, it’s evident in either they need to follow their mother’s footsteps and the generation prior, or they have to break the mould.

And with either one, you get elements of imposter syndrome, which is why they break the mould by fitting into the male mould that was there before and check all of those boxes off and say, “I am a visionary. I am forward-thinking. I am right.” And for men, it’s the same thing, right?

It’s “do I have to be the CEO in order to be successful?” So I think it just manifests differently and it all goes back to not being able to define success on your own terms.

And there is the challenge of finding someone who is willing to break that generations old mould.

R: This would have been something that would have by now taken root in many family businesses that have the willingness, but actually do not know how to go about this.

And I think that is definitely an important train of thought and conversation that needs to continue. So we know that we’ve understood the why, but now how to remedy the situation and how to make sure that if, as a woman, I speak up in the family business, it does not come at such an astronomical cost?

I think asking that of anyone – that’s a big ask. You’re potentially sacrificing harmony in the family; potentially jeopardising all your opportunities going forward.

And so, absolutely fantastic talking to you ladies about these very complicated subjects. We really recommend everyone, reading the original BCR research, which is available.

Thank you, Celine. And thank you, Jean, for joining us on the conversation on women and family business.

J: Thank you, Ramia. A pleasure as always.